Located right in the southeast of France and part of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, Var is one of the country's most traditional, nostalgic departments, with a strong agricultural sector and wine-tasting opportunities galore.
Var's population of over 900,000 are strewn across a land area of 5973 km², characterised by mountains, coastal areas and deep valleys. Indeed, the diverse areas of natural beauty are one of Var's major attractions for tourists, being close to the Cote d'Azur, connected to the Alpes-Maritimes and overlooking the Mediterranean.
Toulon is the prefecture of Var and its largest city. However, there are a number of other significant communes:
One of the 83 original departments established in March 1790, Var was actually formed from the fragmentation of the original site of Provence. Named after the Var River which initially flowed through the department, its borders were further changed in 1860, when the Grasse district was transferred to the Alpes-Maritimes. As a result, the river bizarrely no longer features in Var.
The department would play a significant role in the 20th century, being one of the landing points for the Allied invasion of southern France in 1944 during World War II. However, such an ordeal has not permanently scarred the landscape and Var today stands as a wonderful monument to rural France, attracting flocks of tourists annually.
Var enjoys a typical Mediterranean climate with dry, mild winters and hot, humid summers tempered by the sea breeze. Toulon is a representative example of temperatures in the department:
Average temperature in Toulon
Encompassing roughly 300 kilometres of shoreline, Var is one of the best places for beaches in the whole country. Particularly popular is Les Lecques beach near Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer, which has been awarded the Blue Flag award for cleanliness and beauty year after year.
The coast of the Baie de Pampelonne in St. Tropez and the beaches around the harbours of Saint-Raphaël are also very picturesque. Even in the prefecture of Toulon you can find plenty of places to relax, the largest spot being the Plage du Mourillon.
You can't visit Var without going to see the Verdon Gorge. At 300 metres deep and 20 kilometres long, it is the world's second largest gorge and one of the most beautiful natural sights in Europe. Formed by the Verdon River and close to the French Riviera, it's extremely popular with tourists and climbing enthusiasts. Even if you're not a climber though, you will find opportunities for fishing, canyoning and kayaking.
Prominently featured in Victor Hugo's 'Les Miserables', Toulon is also home to the Cathédrale St. Marie Major. Originally constructed between the 11th and 12th centuries, it was further expanded in the 17th century and now stands as a fabulous hybrid of Romanesque and Gothic architecture.
Another outstanding example of religious architecture which has to be seen is the Basilica of Mary Magdalene. Standing in the commune of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, the Basilica is a wonderful 13th century Gothic edifice in its own right but it was also the site where the tomb of Mary Magdalene was supposedly discovered in 1279, making the church a point of historical significance. If that's not enough, you will find other excellent pieces of religious work in Var, such as the Romanesque-styled Église Saint Nicholas in Bargème, the 11th century Church of the Templar Knights in Saint-Raphaël and the Thoronet Abbey in Le Thoronet.
Possibly the most noteworthy secular monument in the department is the replica of the Statue of Liberty. Currently residing in Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer, the Statue was actually donated by the architect of the original in New York, Frédéric Bartholdi, and is no less impressive for its diminutive stature.
Var is awash with secluded villages which are worth exploring. This is especially true of Seillans and Tourtour, both of which have been classified as two of 'the most beautiful villages in France' by the 1982 foundation of the same name.
Made famous by Brigitte Bardot and still a holiday area for the wealthy, the commune of Saint Tropez on the French Riviera is a sight to behold. This modern-medieval town enjoys a bustling nightlife, charming architecture and a gorgeous coastline all against a backdrop of luxury yachts. A regatta of the yachts in the bay is held every October.
The range of sporting activities available in Var is enough to keep anyone busy. Particularly popular is the Aoubre Adventure Park, spread across a 30-acre paddock and providing aerial runs and educational trails. Water-sports are also well catered for, with the French National Water-Ski Training Site in Roquebrune-sur-Argens being just one option.
Museums, galleries and culture
Toulon contains the best museums in the department. These include the Musée d'Art, which contains works by Sol De Witt and Donald Judd, and the Musée des Arts Asiatiques. For local history though, be sure to check out the Historical Museum of Central Var in the Chapel of Saint Anne.
Elsewhere, the commune of Gassin has some great alternatives such as the Galerie dei Barri, the oldest art gallery in Var, and the Musée de Tauroentum, which contains artefacts from the former Roman town of Tauroentum.
Connected to Var's role in World War II, Draguignan (otherwise known as the 'capital of artillery') is home to an American War Cemetery and an excellent Museum of Artillery.
Toulon is the main location for shopaholics in Var. The Space Mayol mall, the Old Town and the new town centre are all filled with great outlets.
A number of markets are held in each commune. The twice-weekly market in Aups is renowned for its truffles, while Seillans also hosts an annual pottery market around August.
As well as the 1500 routes for climbers, Verdon Gorge is also a premier spot for hikers. A number of beautiful routes are marked out in the Gorge such as Marthel's pathway and the pathway of the Bastidon.
Hiking opportunities can also be found in Artignosc sur Verdon, Artigues, Bargème and the village of Mons. Less taxing but affording excellent scenery are the parks of Hyères, including the Parc National de Port-Cros.
There are a few golf courses in Var, some of the most popular being the Fregate Golf Club in Saint-Cyr-Sur-Mer and the Gassin Golf Club.
Food and drink
The local cuisine of Var is based around local produce rather than complex gastronomy. Staple Provençal dishes like bouillabaisse (fish stew) and ratatouille dominate menus, along with local specialities such as tapenade paste and daube provençale stew. Toulon is home to most of the best restaurants in the department, with 'La Chamade' being an excellent choice.
Var is a major part of the winemaking industry. The department produces 150 million litres each year and 45% of sales in Var are from wine. The Bandolais wine district is the nexus of local industry, being home to the Côte de Provence Apellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) and containing a wonderful selection of red wines. As well as the commune of Bandol, La Cadière-d'Azur and Le Castellet are both packed with vineyards.
Ease of access
Toulon is the main port of call for international visitors, being home to the Toulon-Hyères Airport, which holds a connection with London-Stansted. The prefecture also has a good railway network, which connects Var with the major French cities. Within Var itself, the A8 and A57 roads ensure relatively easy travelling from commune to commune.
Value for money
Prices in Var depend greatly on where you stay. Naturally, if you decide to holiday in Saint-Tropez, you can expect to pay a far more significant sum than if you book elsewhere.
Across the department as a whole prices are excellent, with a range of camping sites, hotels, apartments and country houses all available, see here for examples.
Connected to some of the most beautiful areas in France and Europe, Var is a fantastic place to visit if you want to get away from civilisation and pick up both a sense of the rural lifestyle and plenty of wine!